The first surprise was always the size and strength of his hands, hands that at the greeting clasp seemed meant for riveting the high steel or fielding a hot grounder, hands that blessed and anointed as if the spiritual were as actual as honest labor or tender sex. Hands that made the holy real, just as the hands of the firefighters waiting beside him prepared to make the real holy, hefting tools and tugging at air tank straps.
His own hands hung useless at his sides as he now stood on West Street in a Roman collar and a black standard-issue FDNY firefighter’s protective turnout coat, gazing from under the brim of his white fire helmet. He and the firefighters around him were witnessing an elemental law of nature by which a falling object accelerates at thirty-two feet per second minus the particular air resistance, be the object a lead weight dropped by Galileo from the Tower of Pisa or a human being leaping from the upper floors of One World Trade Center.
Male or female, young or old, healthy or ill, urban or suburban, black or white or Hispanic or Asian, married or single, parent or childless, straight or gay, rich or poor, generous or miserly, kind or cruel, fierce or meek, virtuous or sinful, dreamy or practical, toned or flabby, Christian or Jew or Muslim or Hindu, all fell at the same ever-increasing rate. The only variants were density and surface area. Mundane business papers wafted gently down, but even the most decent person was soon plummeting at nearly 150 miles per hour.
Those who leapt from the topmost floors of the North Tower fell for as long as nine seconds. The people on the floors closest to where the plane actually hit had maybe seven seconds, still time to think of loved ones and pray to their particular notion of the Almighty. A Roman Catholic, for example, would have been able to say a Hail Mary but not an entire Act of Contrition. Everybody had time to utter "Oh, God!" or "God, no!" or some other plea even atheists cry at the onrush of death. All likely remained as keenly conscious as skydivers.
Some jumped together, holding hands. Most leapt singly, often tumbling as they fell. At least one man stayed feet first, his red-and-blue tie streaming above him. But most were on their backs as they reached the lower floors, facing the heavens if not necessarily heaven. Their last sight was of the perfect baby-blue sky as they struck the pavement with a velocity that instantly turned a living person into a bright red splatter. The sound was jarring, loud, a body becoming a bomb.
Other sounds, the wailing of sirens, converged from uptown and downtown and crosstown, more sirens than had ever been heard in the city. Engine companies and ladder companies and rescue companies kept arriving, eventually more than 240 FDNY units from all five boroughs. The attack had come just as the firehouses were changing shifts, and many companies arrived with double the usual contingent of five. Anyone who happened to be hanging around came, too. Those who could not cram onto the rigs drove their cars and pickup trucks or commandeered taxicabs. One young firefighter rode the subway from Midtown in full gear, standing amid gawking passengers. Off-duty firefighters reported on their own. One had been golfing. Another had been surfing at Rockaway, riding in to shore when he saw the distant smoke. Another bicycled from Brooklyn. Another hit traffic in the Battery Tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan and ran the rest of the way, emerging at the foot of the towers.
The firefighters who did not have equipment rummaged the rigs at the scene. They joined the others in pulling on air packs, grabbing tools, and shouldering thirty-pound hose lengths as they would at a routine tenement blaze. Then they saw the jumpers.
A figure would be tiny and indistinct at first, but grow more and more detailed as it fell closer, its gender and race soon becoming clear, then startlingly vivid, an individual human being in the instant before striking the pavement. The sound of each reminded the firefighters what would happen if one of these bodies struck them. There was none of the usual fire-scene banter as they gazed skyward and tried to gauge when they could dash those final steps into the tower while burdened with fifty-six and a half pounds of gear and whatever tools they carried.
"When I say run, you just run!" a fire officer shouted. The F.D.N.Y. chaplain stenciled in reflecting yellow letters on the back of Father Mychal Judge’s turnout coat marked him as one figure unburdened of even the expectation that he dash into danger. He could have stayed at the staging area across from the tower with nobody thinking less of him. The sick and the dying and the bereaved had often said that the touch of his big Irish hands seemed the Almighty’s own and that he looked heaven-sent with his warm blue eyes and a marquee-handsome face lined only by his smile. But he could no more save those still trapped above than he could catch those who jumped and landed with such force there was nothing even to anoint. He was a sixty-eight-year-old priest, three years past the age when a firefighter would be forced to retire, and he could pray just as well from where he stood.
Still he had always stood witness at the forward command post as the firefighters battled what they sometimes called the Red Devil. And on this morning when there was only hell on high, absolute evil seemed to be challenging the value of life itself.
Just the day before, Judge had ended a firehouse dedication in the Bronx by placing his big right hand over his heart and singing "God Bless America." He now listened mutely to the unholy detonation of body on pavement, each seeming to be mocking proof that the cosmos was ultimately and absolutely indifferent, that the differences between people were inconsequential because people themselves were of no consequence, that what was real was just real, that if there is a God, then He has no hands at all.
Yet all around him was the manifest grace of firefighters poised to risk everything to save those of whatever persuasion, firefighters who routinely challenged the cosmic indifference of combustion and gravity by placing all lives ahead of their own. They moved as one when the order came to "Run! Run! Run!"
For Judge to have let his fear rule him would have been to shrink before a challenge to all decent people, to have let evil win. He moved with the firefighters, his black lace-up shoes in pace with their fire boots across the field of carnage, crunching on the broken glass and skirting the fresh red splatters.
He was a priest who could make a paraplegic man feel lucky and make a dying AIDS victim feel the kiss on his forehead was the kiss of the Almighty Himself. He was so dashingly handsome, he once arrived in his habit at a party and was mistaken for a male stripper in costume. He was so brash, he made the cardinal sputter, and so devout, he was sometimes lost in prayer for hours. He brought laughter everywhere—to the White House in the wake of scandal, even to grim vigils in the burn unit. He had a genius for saying exactly the right thing in the most extreme circumstances and knew when to say nothing at all. A former mayor called him his best friend, and homeless people listed him as their next of kin. He saw Alcoholics Anonymous as a miracle of wine into water where people struggled to save their own souls. He admired nobody more than those who saved lives, and on other days when firefighters died, he declared their firehouses holy ground, their spirit alive anew with every alarm. In the aftermath of this fire unlike any others, his own spirit would join with theirs to be more powerful than anyone could have imagined and, for a brief time anyway, defeat the evil and affirm all he believed. Those who loved him would remember what he often said of his most passionate love, who was neither man nor woman yet both.
"My God is the God of Surprises."
Excerpted from The Book of Mychal by Michael Daly
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Daly
Published in 2008 by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press
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